Conversations With Albert Einstein
[Reprinted from Science Digest, July 1985,
Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of
thousands of human beings, a group of scientists, must of whom had
worked on the Manhattan Project, questioned the further uses of atomic
energy. Late in 1945, their concern led to the founding of the
Federation of American Scientists, a branch of which was soon formed
in Philadelphia, where I was teaching in medical school. At our first
meeting, we discussed how best to educate the public in understanding
this new form of energy, its dangers and possible benefits. When I
suggested making a film, my colleagues happily tossed the project into
My script underwent several revisions under their critical eyes, and
when it was finally approved we decided to seek Albert Einstein's
approval and advice. I phoned his residence in Princeton in the latter
part of May 1946 and explained my mission to his secretary, Helen
Dukas. A minute later Einstein was on the phone, offering to help the
film project in any way.
So, on a fine late spring day in June, I rang the bell at 112 Mercer
Street, Princeton, and stated my business to Miss Dukas. "Ah!"
she exclaimed, "Hollywood."
"Philadelphia," I corrected, shattering her illusions about
a glamorous trip to the West.
In the distance, at the end of the long hallway, I espied Einstein.
He wore his usual jersey, baggy pants and slippers. What especially
struck me as he approached the doorway was that he seemed not to walk
but to glide in a sort of undeliberate dance. It was enchanting. And
there he was, bright, sad eyes, cascading while hair, with a smile of
greeting on his face, a firm handshake and an invitation to follow him
up the stairs to his second-floor study.
His workroom had a large window looking down on a long, brightly
planted garden. Against the walls there were two cases crowded with
books and periodicals. A plain wooden table held several work papers
covered with neat mathematical computations, some pipes and a pouch of
tobacco. Einstein, I soon discovered, was addicted to his pipe then.
And after doctors ordered him to quit, he would sometimes take an
empty one and gesticulate with it as if it were an extension of his
hand or a pointer. He later told me that he missed his pipe, adding
with a laugh that when he happened to find himself behind a man
smoking a pipe on the street, he would follow his fragrant trail of
Einstein seated himself in a comfortable lounge chair and invited me
to lake the chair opposite him. Alter some polite talk, during which
he deemed the title, One World or None, an excellent idea, he
asked me to read the script. When I had finished, he removed the
ubiquitous pipe from his mouth and exclaimed. "A-one!" I
wondered whether he had any suggestions before we went into
production. "No," he answered. "It is just right."
Miss Dukas appeared with a tray laden with tea things. While we
enjoyed this treat, Einstein underscored the neccessity of finding
additional ways to control the uses of atomic energy. International
law, he declared, would be a prime means of achieving such control. "But
international law exists only in textbooks on international law,"
I remarked. "Every treaty, with few exceptions, ever signed
between nations has been broken." Einstein at first seemed
inclined to dispute this but stopped in his tracks and thought for
what seemed to me to be several minutes. "Yes," he finally
decided, almost mournfully. "You are quite right."
Birth of the 'Vacant Lot" Proposal
When we discussed other ways by which governments might be persuaded
to control nuclear energy, he admitted that he wasn't very hopeful of
any reasonable solution from such quarters. He mentioned the gallant
efforts of Leo Sizilard and others on the Chicago atomic project to
reach President Truman and persuade him not to drop the bomb on a
Japanese city. Instead, they suggested, we should notify the Japanese
that we had such a bomb and were reluctant to use it. If their
government questioned its destructive power, a remote, vacant site
should be designated for a demonstration. Unfortunately, Truman chose
to disregard the advice. How, then, were we to deal with the problem?
We agreed to explore every possible means for controlling the uses of
nuclear energy and for educating mankind to the necessity for doing
so. Einstein considered the proposed film as a step in that direction,
adding that it clearly required additional support. The book from
which we took the film's title had been fairly widely noticed, but not
to the extent it deserved. That was to be expected, Einstein observed;
therefore, an extended educational campaign would be necessary.
Encouraged by Einstein's approval of the script and by his strongly
expressed interest and support, I returned to Philadelphia to complete
the project. The ultimate film, released in October 1946, was rated by
a New York University propaganda-analysis expert as "the most
effective documentary that was ever produced."
Alter moving with my family to Princeton in 1949, I was invited to
address the recently formed Unitarian Fellowship on the control of
nuclear energy. To my surprise, Einstein and his stepdaughter Margot
were in the small audience. Some weeks later, he invited me to tea. He
had apparently forgotten that we had met, but when I reminded him he
inquired after the fate of the film. I told him that its exhibition
had been curtailed alter a falling-out between the officers of the
Federation and those of the National Committee on Atomic Information.
He was appalled and wondered whether anything could be done to rescue
But what he wanted to discuss was nuclear disarmament. I had
suggested in my lecture that, as a first step to total disarmament,
the nations possessing nuclear weapons at that time - the United
Slates and the USSR - should agree lo disarm. Einstein thought this a
good idea. I still think it is a good idea, but apparently governments
In the course of our discussion he raised the subject of human
nature. How were we going to deal with the problem of disarmament when
humans, he felt, had such a propensity for aggression? He believed
that man was an innately aggressive creature - that was the real
problem. To illustrate his point, he told me that he would give his
son a smack on the posterior when he behaved naughtily as a boy. With
a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, Einstein accompanied his words with
a wide, circular motion of his arm, indicating that the smack usually
produced the desired effect. He seemed firm in his belief that his
son's naughtiness, as well as the spanking administered, were innately
reactive, instinctive acts. He considered domestic violence between
parents and children but a minuscule example of international violence
I indicated that there was more than an indirect relationship between
the bodily punishment of children and the development of
aggressiveness, that there might be a causal relationship between
spanking and various forms of violence, including war. I cited
evidence that indicated humankind was not innately aggressive, that
there was no such thing as a drive toward destruction, or death
instinct, as Freud had postulated; that, indeed, human beings had no
instincts at all.
Einstein reacted with incredulity, pointing out that evidence of
man's innate aggressiveness was everywhere. He recalled questioning
Freud concerning the origins and cure of war. Freud had replied that
his observations led to the melancholy conclusion that
"there is no likelihood of our being able to
suppress humanity's aggressive tendencies. In some happy corners of
the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever
man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by,
unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit: I
would like further details about these happy folk."
The details were available in Freud's day for the Australian
aborigines, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Hopi and Zuni Indians, the
Pygmies of the Congo and others. The evidence is available for many
more peoples today. In spite of Freud's doubts, many such gentle,
unwarlike peoples do exist.
What Is the Task of the Open Mind?
Einstein agreed that questioning the obvious was the task of the open
mind. In two separate sessions we examined the evidence which showed
that not only humans but many other animals learn to be aggressive,
rather than being innately so - facts since set out in many books.
Einstein spent most of the time listening, questioning, until our last
session. He then conceded that the doctrine of man's innate depravity
was unsound, and that the newborn strives toward growth, development
and fulfillment of its potentialities for cooperation rather than its
potentialities for destruction.
When the subject of prejudice entered one of our early conversations,
Einstein recalled an incident of mindless anti-Semitism at a
conference of physicists. He had approached one of the conferees, whom
he had known for some time. "Refusing my outstretched hand,"
said Einstein with a laugh, "he turned a complete hundred eighty
degrees and hurriedly walked away." Aware that the man had on
several occasions unsuccessfully attempted to discredit his theories,
Einstein seemed to accept the affront with his customary good humor.
But the encounter was an omen of what was yet to come -the burning of
Einstein's works and his narrow escape from the Nazis.
He showed another aspect of his magnanimity during the McCarthy
period. A magazine called the American Mercury, which had been taken
over by a reactionary millionaire, listed Einstein and myself as "two
Princeton Communists." When I mentioned this to Einstein, he
merely laughed. When I wondered whether he would want to do anything
about such a libel, he laughed again and said that the best thing to
do in such cases is to ignore it.
One of Einstein's notable characteristics was the ease with which he
laughed - his fine sense of humor. On one of my early visits, I asked
him whether he knew the epitaph written for him:
Here Einstein lies, an enterprising Teuton, Who,
relatively speaking, silenced Newton.
He hadn't heard it, but found it amusing. Nor had Einstein heard the
Three wonderful people called Stein;
There's Cert and there's Ep and there's Ein.
Gert writes in blank verse,
Ep's sculptures are worse,
And nobody understands Ein.
This amused him, but best of all he liked the story of the two men
from the Bronx.
"What is relativity?" wonders the first. "Supposing,"
explains the second, "an old lady sits in your lap for a
minute, a minute seems like an hour. But if a beautiful girl sits in
your lap for an hour, an hour seems like a minute."
"And this is relativity?" asks his companion.
"Yes," answers the other, "that's relativity."
"And from this he earns a living?" Einstein laughed
heartily at this and remarked that it was one of the best explanations
that he had ever heard.
When I asked his opinion of the great acclaim he had received, he
replied quite seriously, "It feels like a fraud." He really
didn't understand what all the fuss was about. This was not false
modesty. Einstein was perfectly serious. I understood, of course, that
he was talking about-as one distinguished physicist said of him - "hitting
the jackpot not once, but five times." His quintuple "jackpot"
(the theory of special relativity, the theory of general relativity,
the unified field theory, quantum mechanics and statistical physics),
while it had entailed hard work, was really easy for him; the acclaim
seemed more than a bit overdone. Those of us who have lived long
enough and met many kinds of people know that men and women of genius
are seldom vain and that those of lesser achievement often are.
When I was a student in the early 1920s, relativity hit postwar
England with a bang. I remember silting up with fellow students late
into the night trying to clarify what it really meant.
We understood that Einstein's theories were revolutionary and
exciting, but I am not sure that any of us ever developed a clear idea
of what Einstein was really saying. To make up for my ignorance, I
took to reading books on theoretical physics. One of the things that
greatly interested me was the principle of indeterminacy, or, roughly,
chance. As a determinist - that is, one who believes that everything
has an explicable cause - it seemed to me that only when our knowledge
is limited are we unable to reach a specification of the necessary
conditions sufficient to explain an effect. I think it was Henry
Norris Russell, the astronomer, who preferred to call the principle of
indeterminacy "the principle of limited human measurability."
When I asked Einstein about this, he said he firmly believed that
only our ignorance prevented us from predicting, in any generated
movement of atoms, precisely where each will be. "Good. It is
excellent," he said of Russell's principle. "It is, indeed,
due to our human limitations that we cannot solve many problems, not
because some problems are necessarily insoluble." This was
implied in his famous remark, "Subtle is the Lord, but malicious
He is not." When asked what he meant by this, he replied, "Nature
hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means
of ruse." And on another occasion he put this even more
explicitly: "I am at all events convinced that He does not play
On a purely personal matter, I once asked Einstein how many hours he
slept. He replied, "Seven." I told him that Napoleon said
that he needed only three hours. "Ah," commented Einstein, "but
he was such a big boaster!"
During his last years, Einstein was often to be seen walking down
Nassau Street, the main street of Princeton, usually accompanied by a
friend or his stepdaughter, on his head his favorite knitted cap, in
summer in a pullover, in winter in a topcoat. Often, when he happened
to pass by, children would call out to him, "Hi, Einstein!"
And he would invariably return their greeting with a smile and a wave.
The morning following Einstein's death on April 18, 1955, my editor
said, "Princeton must no longer be the same to you without
Einstein." It was very true, and continues to be so, as if a
piece of the continent had been washed away by the sea. It is a
feeling, I am sure, most people in Princeton experienced. It is a
feeling, I am sure, much of the world shared.